A report released this week, Andijan Refugees Speak Out, brings new information to light about the Uzbek government's massacre of unarmed demonstrators in 2005. On May 13-14, 2005, large numbers of citizens gathered on a public square in the provincial town of Andijan after a trial of businessmen, widely seen as unjust, led to a prison breakout in which several guards were killed and hostages taken. The 44-page report available in English and Russian, edited by Bakhtier Muhtarov of the refugee group Andijan Justice and Revival, validates the definitive 2006 report by Human Rights Watch. The refugees’ report also publicizes newly-available testimony and insights into the tragic events, and concludes with a claim that deliberate and deadly attacks were made by government troops on peaceful demonstrators.
Shocked and traumatized, survivors of the Andijan massacre at first kept silent, and were further motivated not to speak out by the dreadful reprisals against those arrested. Refugees who managed to escape abroad also found that their relatives back in Uzbekistan were harassed and detained by security police, and they feared exposing what they knew. But gradually, a group of refugee leaders emerged determined to make known their story. As the European Union drops sanctions against the perpetrators and the United States has also stopped calling for an independent investigation into the events, the refugees were concerned to keep the grave injustices visible. For the first time, the survivors of the Andijan massacre themselves have prepared a report painstakingly documented from witness accounts, using Skype to reach the diaspora of hundreds of Andijan refugees scattered throughout Europe, North America and Australia.
The report provides chilling first-hand testimony of how masked security police, reportedly acting on government orders, were said to deliberately machine-gun down rows of peaceful demonstrators, also targeting weapons on them from armored personnel carriers, and sniping at them from the roofs of buildings to kill them even as they struggled to take cover in a school and other buildings. From the refugees' testimony, scenes that had not been publicized before emerge; for example, as some people injured from the massive gunfire managed to reach a hospital in search of first aid, apart from doctors, they reportedly encountered security agents violating medical neutrality, who tortured them to find out about the instigators of the jail-break.
The refugees were able to compile records of more than 500 people killed by shooting on the streets of Andijan and its environs, or who died as a result of capture as they attempted to flee to the border, or from torture in prison afterward. Relatives received back bodies of family members with clear marks of beatings, cuts, and burns. They also found evidence of mass graves that could not be documented, and removal of bodies from the scene, indicating possibly many more deaths. The Uzbek government officially acknowledges only 189 deaths, and justifies its response as appropriate given the initial violence perpetrated by what was characterized as an extremist Islamic movement. The 23 businessmen tried in 2005, popular in the poor community for bringing jobs and goods, said to belong to the "Akromiya" movement, rejected the claims of fundamentalism and said their activities were legitimate.
Few Western reporters were able to cover the events, but some Western accounts contain speculation that troops fired in panic when facing the large crowd, or accidentally fired at unarmed civilians while chasing armed criminals. But the voluminous materials gathered and sorted by the refugees for the first time in this new report paint an entirely different picture -- a cold and determined high-level government plan that allegedly sanctioned the deliberate shooting of unarmed demonstrators with intent to kill them as punishment for daring to protest.
On May 13, word spread that President Islam Karimov himself was going to come to Andijan and appear before the crowd. Women naively came with their small children in tow, thinking that at last they would have a chance to get a hearing for their grievances. As one survivor testified:
On May 13, 2005, hearing that President Karimov was coming to Babur Square, I came to the square with my five children. A lot of people had gathered. That is because many people suffered from material and morale problems. Unemployment, lack of money for medical care, the injustice of bureaucrats, corruption and much else caused people to want to complain to the president. But no one came to hear the people's protest. Instead, they shot at us from military vehicles. Then it was announced in the crowd that a 13-year-old boy had been killed. After that, even heavier gunfire broke out. From this unexpected turn of events, I became confused and with my children, following the crowd, I ran toward Chulpon Avenue. There were a lot of people. My children, grabbing at me from five sides, were sobbing loudly. I had never heard or read that women and children could be shot at in such cold blood in this way before.
As the refugees' detailed accounts indicated, some 400 of the 500 killed were said to be driven deliberately into a trap -- authorities had blocked all the exits from Bobur Square with APCs, preventing people from dispersing home. Instead, they drove the crowd into a closed street, Chulpon Avenue, where snipers and police shot to kill. It was these scenes of deliberate killings that prompted eyewitnesses to allege that troops not only shot to disperse the demonstration, but to summarily execute anyone who took part in it. Later, some tortured detainees recounted that police said they had received orders supposedly emanating from the president himself to shoot to kill.
Some of those who were chased from the square simply formed a column and kept walking 25 kilometers to the border, hoping to find asylum in Kyrgyzstan. Instead, they found Uzbek troops waiting for them, some were shot and killed, and others taken to a hospital were later arrested. After May 13, any relative of the 23 businessmen, and even anyone from their home village of Bogi-Shamol was detained.
According to Human Rights Watch, 245 people were tried and sentenced for the demonstration, mostly at closed trials, many of them tortured during investigation and after incarceration; as recently as this month, for example, one man died after years of torture related to his arrest in Andijan. The sentences range from 5-21 years, and as the convicts reach the end of their terms, they are often now slapped with another term.
For the first time, a complete list of those who have been imprisoned has been compiled and publicized in this report. Also included are accounts of victims who heard police tell them that they had been given orders from high officials sanctioning cruelty to obtain testimony